/ Nonfiction /
My mother bristled in the doctor’s office as I questioned my pediatrician, but she didn’t say a word. Dr. Combs was a tall man with kind eyes and a shiny head. I swore he was a white man even though my parents had explained to me he was just light-skinned, like my sister.
For weeks my mother had been insisting that I take a shower instead of the daily bubble baths that I had become accustomed to. She never offered a compelling reason for why I shouldn’t, so I continued my daily ritual. When my personal stash of bubble bath ran out, I used hers. Other times, I would mix my own. I’d combine shampoo, hand soap, bubble-blowing solution, and whatever remnants of liquid soap I could find around the house. I let the faucet spill over my sudsy concoctions until rich white foaming bubbles filled the tub. I’d fluff the bubbles up high and sink in low, my chin just barely skimming the surface. When the water cooled, I’d clutch the release with my big toe, drain it, and replenish the hot water. When my sister asked if she could get in too, I’d shout “No!” through the closed bathroom door, without regret or guilt.
As a little girl, I always knew my mother was plotting to spoil my fun somehow. I remember her insisting that I walk up the hill at her university’s graduation when I was barely three years old. I cut my eyes at her. Graduations are always hot, and I had a perfectly good stroller right there. But big girls walk. And big girls don’t take bubble baths.
So, when Dr. Combs told me it wasn't healthy to only take bubble baths, I knew she had put him up to it.
"Why not?" I challenged as I slid off the seafoam and beige exam table, slicing my eyes into her and boring them into him. I don't remember his response, so I’m sure it wasn’t a very good one.
"She told you to say that to me, didn’t she?" I shot back. Dr. Combs peered down at me from his great height, and I heard them both answer, "No." But I had my doubts. I studied their faces as we exited the exam room looking for evidence of their conspiracy. As Dr. Combs continued to explain the drawbacks of exclusively bathing with bubbles, I continued to question him. Eventually I must have been satisfied with his responses because I agreed to take fewer bubble baths. I must have been about five years old at the time, but it's still one of the last times I remember not being afraid to have an opposing opinion or point of view in the presence of my mother.
Growing up I had seen how she dominated my older sisters. Tall, weary, and elegant she pelleted them with words hard as stone, slicing the calm out of the air. Incessant accusations swirled around the living room and acid attacks punctuated the dinner table. Being miserable was a family affair. So, as the youngest, I was well aware of what was in store for me when I got older. But I wasn’t there quite yet. I was still a little girl; too young to have much responsibility aside from the basic chores – setting the table, folding the dish towels, cleaning the powder room. My penchant for challenging her, however, was about to place me in the realm of older girls. I walked a fine line, and I harbored my oppositional points of view, which I voiced regularly.
I don’t need to wear sunblock just because we’re at the pool. You need to wear sunblock because you’re light-skinned. I don’t because I’m brown.
Long red nails are appropriate in kindergarten. I don’t care what you or God say.
I’m old enough to watch the movies you watch, read the books my sisters read, and listen to Junior Mafia on Natasha’s walkman.
The male parent stole my sugar cookie. He’s a thief, and I won’t forgive him until he gives it back.
My defiance was noted. Mothering a little girl was one thing. Mothering a little girl determined to assert her own contradictory set of beliefs was quite another. And for those of us who were unwilling to adapt to the spirit of quiet deference, we were neither wanted nor needed. There was only room for one woman in that house.
If I wanted to survive, I’d need to be quieter, smaller, and more contained. And I did try. I barely spoke to my mother as a teenager. But the quieter my voice became, the louder my mother’s grew. At some point, our voices began to collide. She would invent things and attribute them to me. She spoke tone, intention, and meaning into words I’d never said, words I’d never dare say. This comingling of voices morphed into a barrage of accusations and routine attempts to humiliate and belittle me. Her words and my internal voice became one. She fed me and I swallowed.
I’m just the bitch of the house. You hate me. You treat me worse than the damn dog.
I guess I am starting to hate you.
You’re killing me. My blood pressure can’t take it. When I have a stroke and die, you’ll all be happy then.
She’s going to die, and it will be our fault. Maybe that is what I want.
Are you having sex? Are you thinking about it? I know you are, don’t lie to me.
Am I going to get in trouble for even thinking about it? Because, well, yes.
You look like you belong on the corner of 14th street. You look like a whore.
Am I a whore?
What are you hiding under all those clothes? Take them off or I’ll take them off for you.
I wasn’t trying to hide anything, but can I? Hide in clothing? Where else can I hide?
You’re never going to get anywhere in life by being cute.
Where would I get? You can get somewhere by being cute? Where?
I can’t believe I gave birth to such a fucking idiot.
She waged a campaign of intimidation against me and advocated for my diminishing self-worth. This comingling caused so much confusion that I began to forget who I was and what my own voice sounded like. By the time I was a teenager I was more than complicit in my own silencing; I engineered it. And during my teenage years, I barely let my mother hear me speak.
But before I stitched myself up, I was a child who was prone to whimsy and drama and an effusive showiness. This embarrassed my mother. I revealed too much. I was too open, too chatty, too loud, too affectionate, too vain, and too bold. My mother had a high standard for decorum and a low tolerance for children. I would catch her watching me, her eyes gleaming with hostility. This is how I wilted. Under her intense and insidious glare. I became lifeless, anemic, and limp. Alive, but not living. There, but with no purpose. Taking up no room in the physical, mental, or emotional space. A restrained, small, unthreatening thing. No longer “too” anything.
In the early years, I would still forget to keep myself small. I remember standing side-by-side with my sister in front of the TV belting out the lyrics to The Little Mermaid’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” as Ursula, the sea witch, coerces Ariel into giving up her voice in exchange for legs. When Ursula looks over her shoulder and sings, “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” me and my sister jumped into the exaggerated hip thrusts and bounces without shame. That was my favorite movie then, and now, I see I was deeply drawn to the idea of voice as a currency. After all, my own mother demanded mine. We were required to submit in exchange for freedom from her oppressive glare and spiteful tongue. I willingly engaged in this transaction, because despite everything, I adored my mother.
Yes, she was a glass mother; one who broke easily, shattering into a thousand prickly pieces. And she is still fragile, she doesn’t bend. She is the mother for whom I shrink and wilt, so as not to threaten or offend. And yet, she is the mother who read aloud to us after dinner with warmth and precision, never missing a word or a beat, assigning different voices to different characters, and knowing more etymology than perhaps the author herself. But she was never satisfied. She was the mother who scowled at the sun and sulked in the shade, hurling household items at us for improperly swept steps and snapping wire hangers over me as I dressed for school. She also showed up for us. Pouring over homework assignments and school projects, plunging her burdened brown hands into our thick dark hair, creating intricate plaits and braids. She sewed the Halloween costumes from our imaginations. I was the “Queen of Doom” one year with a sparkling black cape and a high, stiff metallic collar. She spent hours cooking our favorite meals. And then, she’d drive away in our blue van, leaving us for hours at a time and swearing to never come back. I believed her every time. And I’d dissolve into a puddle of inconsolable tears. Later, when I fell silent, she’d lash out at me, slapping me for not speaking up enough, for cowering now that she wanted me to speak. My mother is fractured, but she’s not broken. She retains her frame. She is still the mother who conspired with her sisters to smuggle my favorite apples into the country and send them – those cherished ruby red Otaheite apples – to me while I was away at college. She is the mother that taught me how to ride a bike in an afternoon despite never having ridden one herself. She’s also the mother who told me I could, and should, write. She is my first friend and my first enemy. She’s the mother I long for and the mother I never want to become. She’s the only mother I have, and I’ll never stop wanting and loving her.
I don’t take bubble baths anymore, but in many ways, I refused to grow up for a long time. Afterall, there was only ever room for one woman in that house. If I were to become a woman, where would that leave her?
I avoided adult relationships, adult decisions, and especially children. Lately, I’ve been working to disentangle her voice from mine. To pull it apart. But it’s hard. I still keep myself buttoned up, neatly stitched at the seams. Sometimes I think I prefer it that way. She was right, I am too much. A dialed back version of me is probably a better version of me. But this voice doesn’t belong to me, and it doesn’t feel like home.
There’s a lot of noise in the space between my mother’s voice and mine. Between her voice and mine is a disappearing edge. I’ve walked that edge with exacting rigor my whole life, knowing exactly where to step and where not to. I am in tune with her every shifting desire. For so long, my thoughts orbited her, and she became my center.
And now I live in the fracture.
I take cover in the static friction between her voice and mine. It's never been safe to access my own voice, but it's too dangerous to live in hers. Our voices are once again approaching opposition. And, there exists now a barely perceptible will to speak. With that comes my betrayal. My refusal to wholly submit to her and join her in my flattening. In order to return to my voice, I'll have to let go of hers. I'm afraid that means severing our connection, maybe permanently. Still, I'm not ready to die here.
And yet, I’m drawn to the noise that distances me from my own voice. I clutter my mind by watching too much TV, too much social media, and cycling through relationships with people who undermine and silence me: A boyfriend who tells me it’s not abuse if there aren’t any bruises, a therapist who after 10 years of treating me tells me maybe I’m not treatable after all, a friend who demands I tiptoe around her feelings because she is too fragile to hold the truth. I find my mother’s voice everywhere.
The only silence I welcome is sleep. But even in my sleep, I dream. I dream of men I can’t see, but hear, chopping wood at dawn, houses that are meant to be mine, but hold none of my belongings, and driving a car that won’t stop. When I wake, I try to escape silence and its demands for self-excavation. I’m not an archeologist. I don’t dig.
But when I am silent, there’s a reverberating energy that picks up speed and radiates throughout my entire body. Scattered feelings and grievances claw their way to the surface demanding attention, but I’m not sure I have the energy to contend with them. I prefer to be numb now.
I don’t speak, I don’t yell, I don’t cry. I hear my mother’s voice telling me to be quiet and dignified. She never liked noisy children, and I determined to be a dutiful daughter.
Yesterday, I drove two and a half hours to an empty beach I know. Shearing forces of water, thick ocean air, pounding waves, and electric ions – this is the chaos I know and where I feel most at home. Crashing waves made room for stillness and an internal silence. I tasted my salt tears, thick and fresh. And now, in the silence, I remember and it’s me who begins to speak.